Research briefing December 2012 – Creative Networks strand

December 21st, 2012 by Jonathan Dovey in Creative Networks Research | no comments

University of the West of England/South Blessed

First Phase, ending December 2012 – Summary report

Research Activity

We carried out four stages of research activity between June and December 2012. Our starting point was to interview and observe the work of South Blessed founder/director Vince Baidoo so that we could better understand his motivations and working practices. We then ‘snowballed’ outwards – firstly interviewing strategic South Blessed (SB) collaborators considered as valued supporters of the network’s core vision and work in order to gain insight into how they experience themselves as Creative Citizens – secondly interviewing a cross section of SB users/contacts at the outer edge of the network to investigate the SB user community, the SB brand as community asset and the impact that SB has. We have also been simultaneously investigating and analysing SB online content and interactions with users and audiences. These interviews have produced new insights and questions that will help to inform a series of focus group activities next year. Furthermore, group development sessions with Vince and the University of the West of England (UWE) research team have identified a co-creation project (production plans below), which will be carried out in 2013, with a program of action research to support it.

We felt it was very important to identify and establish realistic expectations and intentions for this project. We therefore developed a memorandum of understanding between South Blessed and UWE (which will be reviewed as necessary) in which the sustainability of SB is key, and our relationship and intervention is designed to support SB in achieving its aims.

South Blessed contributor

Emerging findings

These ideas are emergent and barely formed…

We have made initial readings of the first seven in depth interviews with a further six and all the Nvivo processing yet to come. These interviews are supported by weekly conversations with Vince and time spent in the studio, much of which has focussed on the business of thinking through the ethics involved in the relationship and then considering what form of production intervention we could make next year.

We begin with some ideas inspired by our recent visit to Moseley Exchange around degrees of informality,the more or less raw and cooked. The Exchange is a spacious well managed ordered quiet environment. It has its roots in a particular set of ideas around civic responsibility, identity and intervention that is both bottom up and top down. It has constitutions and bank accounts. Its noticeboard represents its mix; ads for pregnancy yoga, choir, piano lessons and web services are all part of a continuous space with ads for councillor surgeries, planning notices and advice sessions. The mix of the civic citizen and the civics of ‘wellbeing and creativity’ is characteristic.

South Blessed, on the other hand, has no bank account or legal identity of any kind. It is driven by the creative, entrepreneurial and civic energies of one person. It has no notice board but it has a Facebook group (with 290 Friends, though interestingly the proprietor’s personal site has over 2000 friends and this is the main locus of SB Facebook activity) and a website with 1800 mainly music, mainly hip hop, videos. When SB is short of cashflow the proprietor asks volunteers to go out on the street and make bucket collections for youth media training. These collections are unlicensed and have attracted the attention of the beat police officers in central Bristol. Vince argues that since he is providing a media news service his bucket chuggers are protected by the laws that protect newspaper sellers from having to apply for licenses. His news is online, on his sites, it’s a URL not paper.

Our investigation is sited in the informal creative economy and seeks to understand what kinds of value are enacted and created as subjects strive to move from this space into the formal and economically viable milieu. It is clear that our particular sample of the informal creative economy is driven by dreams. A set of creative aspirations, for expression, for success, and advancement. But it would be wrong to dismiss this energy as merely an urban fantasy of ‘making it’, though that’s part of the picture. Often inchoate, contradictory and disturbing such dreams are the constitution of the desire for a space where we are heard and recognised. Dreams are the fuel of informal creative networks. ‘Bristol is full of tryers’ as one of our respondents remarked. The creatives identities in this space are a self built bricolage, music and media production lead, but fashion, graffiti, comics, and anime are all in the mix too. The creatives amongst our respondents have a mixed economy of work, training schemes, freelance engagement in the formal creative media economy, and other kinds of temporary jobs.

The question then arises of what kinds of value are being enacted and what impacts do these valuing practices have upon the community with which they are identified ?

First of all the definition of community remains as elusive here as in any of the literature that has attempted to define the term. We can try to construct this space from respondents’ talk. There is a clear sense of community as network; although the geographic and ethnic aspects of ‘community’ are present this network  self defines more in terms of a mesh of self actualising discourses that have more in common with taste cultures than the place or ethnicity. On one hand this is marked by the preponderance of hip hop, dubstep and MCing performances on the site. On the other by a powerful commitment to a sense of creative personal authenticity where what matters most is being true to yourself and your friends, and finding a way to express that authenticity creatively, in the world. You have to ‘Manifest yourself on your own wavelength’.. ‘just don’t be afraid to be yourself’, have ‘self belief’.

The self identification with this network is primarily through enacting a gift economy around training, skill sharing and common creative plans, enterprises and events. This dynamic itself creates informal training and support networks in ‘the community’; these networks by their nature need to be open and porous – access to entry into the network is a key element to its ‘brand’. The proprietor speaks eloquently about his discovery that his SB logo (Jamaican colours in a heart shape) just ‘worked’, it represents ‘anyone in the South West’. But the scale and dynamic of this network is also significant,’ ‘So it is an all round promotion of self sufficiency. Creating the change that you want from the grass roots upwards. Not necessarily waiting for something to be created for you, just doing it.’

These practices do not spring up in the world because of digital. In fact the informal creative economy respondents in our sample are all the beneficiaries of assets formerly built up in the community including, not least, schools but also the 30 year old St Pauls Kuumba Arts theatre and workshop just round the corner from the SB Studio. Four of the first six subjects had also met on the First Light training programme run in Bristol where they undertook mainstream Film & TV industry placements. These histories are also informed by the impact of informal, especially online, education networks in terms, especially, of news and documentary information. Hence the aspiration to a news as well as entertainment provider and the recent SB live streaming events. The SB Brand aspires toward a professional standard of output – that should be an alternative news and current affairs space representing the points of view of the network.

However although its clear that these practices have cultural histories it is equally clear that they would be wholly different, if not impossible, without digital communications. The SB Product is a website edited by the proprietor who uploads videos made by other people in the hope and expectation that other sites will upload the videos that are made on his label. No money is exchanged and no IP is lost. The Brand is most active on Facebook. The SB site is primarily a shared site for the promotion of events and activities of the SB network members. The proprietors site on the other hand is much more of a site for conversation and dialogue; here he discussed the approach by the police to make him part of their community liason team. Here he announced his call to make the live stream facility a space for local democratic debate. The attention that gives SB its value is mobilised primarily online rather than through a newspaper, fanzine, live music events, or a shop; traditional sites for the focus of an informal creative economy network.

What values and assets are being created here? Far too soon to say with any authority. We crucially depend on the third level of our respondents to offer us an outsiders or marginal account of the network. However it seems that, firstly, real and potential economic value is circulating. Secondly the network is a rich resource for its members to ‘self actualise’ in some way. Thirdly that it provides a necessary communications network for some, albeit contested, dynamics of community cohesion. Finally that the network qualities of openness combined with connectivity enact a form of community asset production.

Responses to Research Questions in Phase 1

  • What are the new digital and physical media ecologies and practices currently emerging within communities and how do these impact on the extent and effectiveness of creative citizenship practices? 

SB continues to be interested in traditional forms of media production, the feature film, animation, the printed book, fashion items; the tangibles in this eco system have the major advantage of the potential to produce actual cashflow. This desire for traditional media forms is accompanied by a commitment to quality – that SB products should be of the best possible quality and stand comparison with any work produced in the mainstream. So the new vernaculars of digital are not erasing traditional media values. In fact social networking and social media may be seen as a way of creating attention for the SB product rather than a radically new way of creating that product. Nor is the potential for interaction and dialogue offered by social media explored in any depth. On the contrary the SB pages are more often a site of broadcasting to the network rather than interacting with it.

  • What are the different forms and meanings of creative expression, participation and production that these new media ecologies enable within communities of different types and towards what civic or community goals are they directed? 

Initial evidence is that the SB network produces Civic value by being understand as a site that can produce community cohesion, a network that the authorities (police, journalists) could use to reach disaffecting young people. SB also sees itself in this way to the extent that it announces itself as the livestreaming channel for social enterprise, business or ‘the whole of Bristol ‘ to use to broadcast itself. SB is aiming to have Bristol’s new mayor and police commissioners broadcasting soon. The proprietor’s commitment to reworking the events of the infamous Tesco riots as part of his storyworld for the CC project is also a form of creative expression designed to use the affordances of digital to create a world that will offer meaning to the community for whom those were significant and sometimes contradictory events.

What next?

During the second phase of research we will continue coding and analysing the interview-data, compile (using a mobile app) and analyse a profile of the media landscape our respondents inhabit and conduct focus groups activities (including asset mapping the SB community and network).

The co-creation project proposed will produce and publish a 30 page graphic novel titled ‘Indigo Babies’ written by Vince and illustrated by local street artist Wei, and a series of parallel viral outputs in a range of formats including social media meta narratives, video documentary, music productions, posters and merchandising. Originally devised as a film concept, Indigo Babies has been reframed to work as a publication, in a strategic decision which will speak directly to one of the core aims of the Creative Citizens project; that of wanting to leave the partner community organisations in a more sustainable place than when we first started working with them.

We are building a business plan structure around the publication that will see South Blessed become both more financially sustainable, and more competitive nationally through increased cultural capital. The production will be a talent development programme for musicians, actors, filmmakers and writers, etc.  These local talents would be involved in making hub and spoke viral productions acting as marketing for the publication, and that also existing as outputs in their own right.

We aim to be the first scheme in the UK to introduce the technique of transmedial storytelling to a community network, embedding new social media marketing skills in the SB network. This intervention will also create a platform legacy that other communities will be able to exploit in the future.

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